It's stupefying sometimes how salt is so critical to making flavors pop. And if you're a salt fiend, "critical" is probably an understatement. In essence, salt is a booster of all things delicious.
But what if you could boost your food in a different kind of way by varying how your salt makes its way into your food? Like, with cheese. If you're someone who loves your cheese just about as much as you love your salt, you'll want to learn more about Pecorino Romano. It's salt in cheese form.Pecorino Romano, not to be confused with "pecorino" as a general name for Italian sheep milk cheese, is so stingingly salty that you nearly miss its cheesiness if you eat it plain. As such, it's one of the only cheeses that is accepted across the board as a cooking cheese, precisely because of such concentrated saltiness. When used correctly, you'll find that Pecorino Romano has a unique capability: not only does it act as a pleasantly salty addition to food, it carries a richness that plain salt just simply does not have.
But think about salt itself: When eaten straight, it's blatantly overpowering, but paired with foods, it has the power to amplify and improve. Pecorino Romano kind of illustrates this exact concept. While it's not great for eating, it provides that appropriate salty kick that so many dishes require at the finish.
Despite the name, Pecorino Romano isn't made in Rome. "Romano" actually refers to the Romans, who take the credit for having first started making this cheese over two thousand years ago, which makes it one of the oldest known cheeses around. Now, its production is restricted to Lazio, parts of Tuscany, and Sardinia.
Salt is so key to Pecorino Romano that there is one person, called a "salatore," in charge of its salting. For the first few days of its lifetime, wheels of Pecorino Romano will be rubbed with coarse salt daily, then every three to four days, and then weekly, for a total of 80-100 days of its 8 (or so) months of aging.
Using a microplane yields soft, powdery shreddings, which makes for easy melting of the cheese and subsequent melding into your dishes. It's by far the best tool to use, especially with a delicately-flavored dish which might be overpowered by thicker shavings or a coarser grating.
While the most common application is as a finisher for pasta, gnocchi, and risotto, its potential is limitless. Start considering Pecorino Romano as you do a great salt or nice olive oil to finish dishes. Try it on roasted vegetables (especially zucchini, squash, fennel, and brussels sprouts), atop pizza, right as it goes into the oven on the crust, and then again when it comes out. It's great with eggs and lots of black pepper to counter the salt, in a salad dressing, instead of parm in a pesto, or in a punchy mac n' cheese.
Pecorino Romano is easy to find. And with a reasonable price tag, there's much more to gain than to lose by trying it if you never have before. One reliable brand is Fulvi, with a black exterior and its name stamped around the perimeter. You can find it for $12.98/lb at IdealCheese.com.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: Recipe: Kale Salad with Pecorino
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan; Public Domain Images)